What is it about the head of the canary that appeals so much to the eye? The two canary varieties that I wanted to keep as a teenager both had distinctive heads. One was the Lizard with its cap, the other was the Gloster and its crest. No one kept them locally, and I only knew them from those grainy black and white photos published in Cage Birds (as it was known in those days), but they left a lasting impression.
Providence would lead me several decades later to the Lizard canary, but along the way I had the chance to admire the Glosters of Saunders and Spring, and the Crests of Fred and Ken Rix. Last week a curious coincidence brought them to mind.
It began with a photograph of a taxidermy case that was coming up for auction with Taylor’s Auction Rooms in Montrose (1). It contained an unusual combination of a cuckoo with two crested canaries and a goldfinch mule, but there was something about the canaries that puzzled me. They were about the same size as the goldfinch mule, much smaller and neater than traditional Crest canaries (or crested Norwich as they were know in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), yet surely they were too old to be Glosters. What were they?
By coincidence, Rob Innes contacted me the next day with a query about the early years of the Gloster canary. I rummaged through my archives, but wasn’t able to find anything that could help. However, that rummaging did have the benefit of refreshing my knowledge of the origins of the Gloster canary. My mind turned to those crested canaries in the taxidermy case. Were they connected in some way to the early years of the Gloster canary?
The credit for the creation of the Gloster canary is usually given to a Mrs Rogerson from Gloucestershire who wanted to create a miniature Crest by crossing crested Roller canaries (2) with small Border canaries (3) in the early 1920s. She was introduced to John McClay, a Scottish breeder of Crest canaries, at the Chrystal Palace show of 1925 where she had entered two “miniature Crests”. They were encouraged by A.W. Smith, the John Scott of his day, to develop the new breed which he named the Gloster.
Norman Wallace discovered an interesting variant of the story which he published on the IGBA website. He quotes a Mr Madagan, who claimed that:
“Many fanciers and others imagine that the Gloster was produced from crested Rollers, but this was not the case. Mrs Rogerson purchased a couple of pairs of small Norwich Crests and paired these to the smallest Borders Fancies she could get . . . It took her four years to produce her Ideal.”
The use of small crested Norwich seems sensible because they possessed far superior crests. I can also understand why would have been crossed with Borders in an attempt to reduce size, but I have my doubts about how effective that breeding strategy would have been.
The early years of the Stafford canary (4) demonstrated how difficult it is to graft a crest on to a smooth feathered variety. The crests of most of the birds I saw in the 1990s fell far short of the corona of a Gloster canary; many were just scruffy tufts. I would expect a small Border x Crest mating to encounter the same problems.
Here is a photo of another taxidermy specimen that displays a tufted crest. Unfortunately I have no details of its age or origin, and I am not claiming that it is a nascent Gloster, but it does demonstrate the sort of challenge the Gloster pioneers would have faced.
The pair of canaries in the taxidermy case are small and display far superior crests. Could they be early specimens of the Gloster canary? I decided to investigate. As so often happens, there is no documentary evidence of the actual year they were mounted, but we do know quite a lot about the taxidermist, T.E. Gunn (1844-1923).
Gunn is probably the best known of all Victorian taxidermists (or ‘naturalists’ as they liked to describe themselves). He was born in Norwich and apprenticed to John Sawyer, a local taxidermist, and took over the business on his death. He is renowned for the quality of the preservation of his specimens, mainly because his cases were solid on all sides apart from the glass front, which protected the specimens from UV light.
The label on the back of the case claims the business was founded in 1826, but that must have referred to Sawyer rather than Gunn himself. The label also contains the proclamation that the firm had been awarded “21 Gold & Silver Medals & Diplomas of Honour at the International Fisheries Exhibition, London, 1883”. (5) That tells us that the birds were mounted between 1883 and 1922 when Gunn’s son Frederick took over the business.
Those dates overlap, if only by a few years, the recorded date of Mrs. Rogerson’s Gloster project which started around 1920. The likelihood that the crested birds in the taxidermy case could have been very early Glosters seems remote, but by no means impossible.
My next step was to assess the length of the birds. Fortunately the auctioneers had given the dimensions of the case, and as luck would have it, the canary in the bottom right hand corner is aligned with the diagonal dimension of the case front. That has enabled me to calculate its length, from beak to tail, as 13.2 cms (+/- 2mm). That is half an inch longer than the ideal Gloster (4 3/4” or 12 cms) but almost an inch shorter than the ‘monster’ Crests developed at the end of the nineteenth century.
Taylors kindly sent me detailed photographs of the birds. The canary in the bottom right hand corner does indeed look like a possible Gloster, but the bird on the left tells a different story. Just look at the ‘droop’ of the crest. The real clincher, however, is the colour of the bird. You can see that it displays evidence of colour feeding (6) on the body. I have little doubt that the bird was, to use a contemporary description, a small Crested Norwich.
If so, why do these Crests seem so different from the “monsters” quoted by George Wallace in the third edition of his “Canary Book” (1893)? Fortunately Wallace gives us the answer: they were “the old type of Crested Norwich canary of former days”.
During the 1870s the Norwich was crossed with the Yorkshire and Lancashire canaries to increase its size and, in the case of the crested variety, the length of the crest. A conference was held during the 1880 Crystal Palace show at which a new standard was agreed:
“The original small, active dapper little Norwich, famed for its rich, natural mellow colours, its lovely silky feathers, its close fitting coat, and clean-cut appearance and active movements has now been replaced by a larger, more heavily feathered and bulky bird”.
“The birds, according to this, should be thick and Bobby in shape and should measure as much as six-and-a-half inches in length (16.5 cms), whereas the old size used to measure from five-and-a-quarter (13.3 cms) to five-and-three-quarter inches (14.6 cm) . . .” (7)
The birds in the taxidermy case were almost certainly examples, not just of the old style of crested Norwich, but of the smallest examples of their kind.
With such small specimens available, why would anyone cross them with Borders, with dire consequences for the quality of the crest? Would it not have been simpler to concentrate on breeding with the smallest Crests available, just as Walter Lumsden did with small Borders when he created the Fife canary? It would explain how Mrs Rogerson was able to achieve her ideal in just four years.
A final thought. Why did their owner decide that these birds were worth preserving and mounting on display? The variegated goldfinch mule was probably a successful show bird, but the canaries would have stood no chance in competition against the ‘monster’ Crests. What made them so special? Could it be that their owner considered them to be, perhaps not the finished article, but a significant milestone in the quest to create “miniature Crested canaries”, the birds that would become known as the Gloster canary?
- General: throughout this article the term ‘Crest’ (with a capital C) refers to the distinct breed known nowadays as the Crest canary. In Victorian times it was also known as the ‘Crested Norwich’ canary. A ‘crest’ with a lower case ‘c’ refers to the radiating feathers on the head of a canary, a feature that appears in several varieties.
- The sale will be held on 8 February 2020. The case is lot number 343 if you’re interesting in bidding for a piece of canary history.
- For the benefit if non-British readers, the ‘Roller’ is the name given to the variety known to the rest of the world as the ‘Hartz’ or ‘Hartzer’ song canary.
- The original Border was a small canary. C.A. House (1923) gives its length at 41/2″ (11.5cm).
- The Stafford canary was the product of crossing the Gloster with the red canary.
- This particular label is damaged and the date is indistinct, but Gunn used the same label for many years, and better preserved examples confirm the date as 1883.
- Colour feeding at this time depended on the administration of Cayenne pepper, which was nothing like as safe, or as effective, as modern canthaxanthin supplements.
- The metric conversions are mine.